Features

Magnificent Mauby

The unofficial national tonic of the Turks & Caicos Islands

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

“Bush doctor,” I corrected my students, “not witch doctor. He makes herbal medications, he doesn’t fly around on a broom.” We approached the low, flat house, so shrouded in a tangle of fruit trees and wildly scrambling ornamental vines that it looked as though it was being coaxed down for a nap in the undergrowth. Hanging baskets and shelves swinging from tree branches filled gaps in the foliage, as did a hefty growth of flowering plants on the ground.

Alton Higgs is a renowned bush doctor and herbalist.

A number of roughly-painted signs in loopy cursive festooned the yard’s front fence, made from a blue-green net: “Roaming goats and cows are a nuisance and forbidden by law to enter this yard. You hear!” and “Speed limit 20 MPH. You hear!”. “Hurricane Relief Unfair” stated one, while two more bore appeals to re-open old field-roads to important cultural sites and to give island-born children a status to grow the nation had decidedly more public-sector-aimed themes.
But the most important sign was the two-foot-round circle of polystyrene painted with a sketch of a house and in burgundy letters: “He is here.” (The other side, which could be seen when the sign was swung around and fastened with wire, stated “He is not here”.)
Indeed, there he was, slung low in his homemade seafoam green hammock, a hand dangling so the knuckles grazed the carpet of dead leaves beneath, looking every bit as enshrouded in greenery as his house: Mr. Alton Higgs, the bush doctor and herbalist of Lorimers, Middle Caicos. My two British students, studying conservation science, had a challenging time with the sort-of language barrier—they were new to the Caicos Islands’ accent and lexicon. As Mr. Alton stood from his hammock to greet us, he invited us into his home as he always did, to “Have a drink of the God Bless!” I saw my students mouth the words in silent curiosity. I knew what was coming.
As we entered his living room, the walls smattered with family photos, religious iconography and awards of recognition for personal and cultural achievements, along with handmade basketry and strings of sea beans, and the floor padded by brightly coloured hand-braided flotsam rope rugs, Mr. Alton disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a sweating pitcher and several large mismatched plastic cups. I managed to take the smallest cup . . . I was experienced at this.
As the chilled liquid plunged from the pitcher into each cup, slightly frothy and red-amber with just a hint of cloudiness, I could see my students were uncertain. I took the lead and tossed back a hefty gulp of the drink. Its intense bitterness shocked my tongue and made the inside of my check feel rough. I gulped it and gasped, knowing that the aftertaste about to form was far more pleasant than the initial gush of acridity. My students had a visibly more challenging experience, but they seemed to know that this was some sort of a test. I’m not sure whether they figured they were being tested by Mr. Alton or me, but they sallied forth with strained gulps and a series of blinks and smacking of tongues. In a ritual repeated several times over by my students throughout the years, they had just had their first taste of the unofficial national tonic of the Turks & Caicos Islands, mauby.

Mauby is also known as smooth snake bark.

This unofficial national tonic is something of a regional specialty. Throughout the Caribbean Basin, from Florida through the Islands, Central America into northern South America, mauby is a cultural phenomenon. Mauby beverage (in Spanish maví, pronounced similarly) is made from one of two plants, more often the smooth snakebark tree Colubrina elliptica. This small, attractive tree in the buckthorn family grows throughout the New World tropics in lowland forests and tolerates a wide range of soil types and rainfall levels. Its close coastal relative Colubrina arborescens, in Turks & Caicos often called bastard-mauby or soap bush due to its historic use as a natural washing-up detergent, can also be used to make mauby.
In many parts of its range, mauby is prepared by boiling the bark of these trees and adding sugar, spices and other herbs and allowing the brew to ferment. This was likely the origin of the drink—as a substitute for potato beer when a blight killed Caribbean potato crops in colonial times. While some ferment the brew strongly, in Turks & Caicos it isn’t traditionally fully fermented. Nowadays, it’s even made into a soda pop. In Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic, it appears as popular carbonated beverages, and has been compared to root beer. In Barbados, Mount Gay produces a mauby-flavoured rum.
Although its past purpose was likely inebriation, it has other purported benefits today. In Turks & Caicos, it is said to give strength and “clean the blood.” In Barbados, it is used as a cooling drink and to treat arthritis, hypertension, high cholesterol, diarrhoea and diabetes. In the Dominican Republic, it is sold in rum bottles full of wood, bark and leaves as the intoxicating Mamajuana, used to cure all sorts of ailments.

Mauby drink (in jug) and pills (in glass bottle).

Along with those benefits, it is also touted as a severely effective tonic for the increase of stamina, and as a decidedly powerful aphrodisiac. Its reputation for stamina extends into the survival of stress related to meeting the constant challenges in serving terms as an elected official—at least one former Chief Minister (the position now called Premier) used to occasionally order a gallon of mauby from Middle Caicos to be sent up to Grand Turk on the plane. It’s used for aphrodisiac purposes in the Turks & Caicos and in Haiti as well (one Haitian friend told me, “That’s why there’s eleven million of us!”) and its popularity in some areas of Puerto Rico to feed the demand for manifestation of machismo resulted in the total disappearance of the trees, necessitating the few remaining to be fenced for their protection.
Fortunately, its harvest in TCI is low and sustainable, with bush doctors coppicing trees rather than removing them, so new branches grow back from the trunks. While there’s somewhat a revival of interest in bush medicine, trees are no longer under the pressure they once were, with many people opting for modern conventional drugs. But the benefits of mauby are well-studied, and it’s not a bunch of magical hocus-pocus.
The magic in plants is in their expertise as master chemists, and the trees that produce mauby must be some of the most achieved laboratory professors of all. They produce hundreds of compounds that facilitate their respiration, protection, photosynthesis, repair and reproductive cycles.
Studies into the compounds they produce have revealed that these trees are pulsing with cocktails in their sap. With twice the tannins of red wine, the Colubrina trees work hard on producing chemicals. Polyphenols protect the trees from ultraviolet light damage and allow toughening of tissues that have been attacked by pests and diseases. An array of antioxidants is present in mauby, some unique to the plant. Phenolic acid has been shown to fight prostate cancer in medical studies in Sicily, and flavonoids and anthocyanins help regulate chronic diseases through inhibiting genetic inflammation and inflammatory T-cells, as well as controlling immune cell activity. Medical trials have shown these compounds effective in treating asthma, arthritis and a variety of other inflammatory diseases. Flavanols help block fat retention and show anticancer properties. Several of the many alkaloids present in mauby show antitumor qualities. Saponins, which make the suds favoured in the soap bush, also have anti-inflammatory effects. Isoflavones are present in higher concentrations than in soy (known to help prevent breast cancer) and stilbenes present in mauby are known to inhibit formation of Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies done at University of the West Indies Trinidad and Tobago found significant reduction in blood pressure during two weeks of daily mauby consumption compared to placebo; similar results were noted along with lowering of pulse rate in a study carried out in New York. Indeed, the benefits of Mauby are well documented and continually bring studied.
Before you rush out to your nearest bush doctor and imbibe a quart of mauby to solve your every health problem, remember that plant medicines are not inherently safer than drugs from the pharmacy. Mistakes in species identification, preparation methods and dosage can have significant effects, and mauby is known, with so many compounds in it, to contraindicate some medications dangerously. One should always be certain to discuss additions of medications, including bush medicine, to one’s health regimen with a physician. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to find bush doctors these days, and the art is gradually losing pieces as bush doctors stop practicing.
Fortunately, Mr. Alton has always been willing to teach about bush medicine, and that’s why my students would visit him. His knowledge of medicinal plants, which is traditional and passed down from generations before, is now being analysed in laboratories and found to have significant potential. About 80% of our modern medicines originate in plants, and we have a lot more plants to investigate—there are lots more compounds to describe. That crossover between fieldwork and lab work is important, as is sharing benefits fully with the countries that own those genetic and cultural resources.
While our approach was conservation rather than medical development, the traditional uses of plants are fascinating, and my students always come back to me with lists of questions, usually on the botanical names of the often-colourful local names Mr. Alton uses. But one student I had, of the posher and formally educated ilk, came back with a question that took some time for me to digest. This student wanted to know who Marge was. “Marge?” I asked. My student explained that Mr. Alton kept mentioning someone named Marge when talking about certain plant medicines. I asked for more information and recognised the pattern. “It’s not a person’s name. It’s not Marge . . . it’s marriage. I can understand how it sounds like Marge to you.” My student looked distraught, searched through notes, and began explaining more. “Yes,” I explained, “You marriage plants to produce some medications. It means combining them. Marriage them.” My student looked rather taken aback, even horrified, and scoffed, “Marriage? But that’s not a verb!”



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German photographer Georg Roske took this interesting image as part of a series of photos for the new South Bank development on Providenciales. And although he takes his pictures intuitionally and spontaneously, he realizes the “perfect moment” must be well calculated. For more of his work, visit www.georgroske.de

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